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Russian Doll and The Johari Window, a transcendent review.

Between the flu hitting my household and the cold weather, I got a chance to watch a few Netflix shows. Which, these days with my schedule felt like a luxury. LOVED Netflix’s Russian Doll so much, I had to write about it. 

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I think you should walk in cold, like don’t even watch the trailer below. Just start. The less you know the better. This blog clearly marks those spoilers. Go, watch and then come back to read. Also, the soundtrack is fire. You should listen to it while reading this blog. There is much debate about the ending and what it means. This is my take on the point of the series. 

NON SPOILER REVIEW 

First and foremost, this is a female produced, written and directed show. I have a massive crush on the line up. Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne. I swoon. Female lead production houses make me jump up and down with joy. It’s about damn time. The stories they are producing are the kind of stories I have been waiting for. Female characters who are complex and defy the tropes of the gender on screen. Russian Doll has much to love.  The premise is simple. A woman stuck in a time-loop searching for a way out. It’s a complex version of Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day. That’s really all you need to know. 

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I profess my undying adoration for Natasha Lyonne’s performances. She is one of the few female actresses that I have seen that can tow the line between masculine and feminine on screen. She can make you laugh and cry all in the same breath. Cynical, sharp, sarcastic and vulnerable. She’s the kind of woman I would want on my team. Dishing out hard earned truths with humor. When all was said and done, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role as brilliantly and she rightfully deserves the moment she is having. 

If you love Chicago Fire, you’ll be happy to see Charlie Barnett in a new role. He is also wonderful. A few OITNB cameos here too. Best left unspoiled. 

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So let’s dive right in. Philosophical and psychological references are woven into the writing leading the plot like a heartbeat. This undercurrent makes the writing a treat to indulge. You’ll be smacking your lips wanting more. It’s smart enough for the people who like that sort of thing and if it isn’t your bag, you will still love the story. Brush up on your Johari’s window and you’ll enjoy the plot even more.  

Russian Doll becomes a modern day Devine Comedy, repetition and time manipulation explore human nature. This series nails those elements in ways that Bandersnatch didn’t. There is substance over device. Each cycle, each repetition, taking you deeper into it’s characters. The short length of the episodes make this an easy watch. It’s adult content, so if you have little ones watch after they are in bed. I highly recommend. 

SPOILERS AHEAD 

Gotta get up, gotta get out. Here be spoilers ahead. Proceed at your own risk. 

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Russian Doll starts by throwing you into a birthday party for Nadia. She’s wild, sharp and having a hard time with her birthday. It’s messy, feminine and sassy. Female characters are allowed to be sexual without being overly sexualized. The space, the look, the costume design, I love it. It reminds me of the wild bohemian parties I attended in my 20s. We are thrown head first into the plot and given our first clue with the line: “Alright, Let’s make some choices.” Wonderful clues like this make it a writers delight. 

Love the duality here.

Love the duality here.

Our first death comes as a shock and begins the cycles. We meet Alan, a control freak reliving a break-up with his childhood sweetheart. He is also experiencing the same death loop. This is where the plot takes off. Alan and Nadia debate the morality of their situation, in some of the best moments of philosophical banter between two characters. The actors pull of the complexity of these age old questions with ease. As things heat up and the world they are living in starts to decay and disappear Nadia delivers the theme of the series, Johari’s Window. She explains the concept to Alan.

I first learned about Johari’s window in Psychology 101. In class, we used a set of adjectives that describe our personalities. We then select the ones that we feel represented our public and private selves. Our peers do the same. The results are arranged into a grid that resembles a window. Hence the name. 

The four areas represent a view of ourselves. 

  • Open: The words that both myself and others choose. 

  • Hidden: the words I did selected by my peers didn’t.  

  • Blind: The words my peers selected and I didn’t. 

  • Unknown: The rest of the words. They either do not apply or represent there collective ignorance of these traits by both subject and peer. 

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You might have seen a version of this pop up in self help seminars, corporate retreats or the like. I’ve experienced versions of this myself in all the above. It’s a useful tool of reflection and has helped me uncover much about myself. I also LOVE using it in writing to develop characters to understand motivations and behaviors in writing. 

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We all have blind spots. Our perceptions and projections of reality are deeply woven into our own Johari’s windows. Much like our characters Nadia and Alan. One can not see one’s own blind spots without others. This is where the symbiotic relationship between our two characters begin to dance. The goal of using Johari’s window is to understand who your true self is. If one can free oneself from the trappings of a false self, one can be seen more accurately by others and begin the process of self acceptance, peace and awareness. These concepts arose out of transcendentalism. Emerson, Thoreau, those guys. For this series, the concepts of true self versus false self are worth looking at through our characters, Nadia and Alan. 

Whoah, did I go too deep for ya? Stay with me. 

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True self vs False self.

Interpersonal conflict is the tug of war between true and false self. It goes like this: Your false self is the self you’ve built out of a set of mistaken beliefs, family structures and societal influences. It’s the self you “think,” you need to be in the world. For most of us, breaking this “false self,” requires hard work, reflection and deep community with others. The beauty of Johari’s Window is ever-changing as we grow.

The concept was introduced in the 1960s by Donald Winnicott in a post transcendentalism exploration. His version is similar to the debate of nature versus nurture. He claims that your false self is deeply rooted in infancy by your parents or care givers. Your parents expectations and wishes for you become the fabric of that false self. It isn’t until you are old enough to examine those expectations and wishes that you can begin to test those old theories about yourself and form your own personality. For most of us testing these boundaries happens many times over the course of childhood development and bleeds into adulthood. If one is self aware enough to continue the journey it can become a life long reflection. This idea was picked up by Carl Jung, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, ect ect. All interesting reads if you want to go deeper into this concept. Rather than give you a phycology lesson, let’s continue. Deep Breath, we got this. 

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This is where Johari’s window comes into play in Russian Doll. Nadia and Alan are forced into a cosmic time loop and the only way out, is to work through a version of Johari’s window. We see it clearly in the final episode with this moment:

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A literal Johari’s window. 4 timelines. How fucking brilliant is that? Each timeline is an attempt at self acceptance. Timeline one and two: The characters die. Timeline three and four: They save each other. The characters move from their unknown selves to accepted selves using friendship in the process.

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Through repetition, they are able to look at the perceptions they have about themselves versus the truth. They can examine their pasts and look at what is true or untrue. I love the idea of friendship as a tool for transcendence. The best demonstration of this in action is with the orange.

Nadia asks: “What do time and morality have in common? Relativity. They are both relative to your experience. Our universe has three spacial dimensions. It is hard for us to depict a four dimensional world. But you know, computers do it all the time. Lucky for you, I have the capacity to think like a computer.”

She holds out the rotten orange, we’ve seen this before. The fruit in the series has been slowly decaying over time. This orange, looks moldly.

“In a two dimensional world, its a circle. In a three dimensional world its a sphere. In a four dimensional world.” 

She splits the rotten orange down the middle. Alan exclaims “It’s still ripe!” 

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The ripe orange represents the unknown quadrant of Johari’s window. Unless we cut the orange open, there was no way to know it was ripe. If we judged it by the rind, we would assume it was rotten. To see that it is ripe, requires a person to slice it in half. Pretty cool huh? 

Nadia continues explaining the theory of relativity. I wont’t go down that rabbit hole today, but love the reference. I think that theory and projection psychology go hand in hand.

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Such beautiful writing. In the end, you’ll be left with more questions than answers. Plenty of room for your own analysis. Do Nadia and Alan live? Do they get to start over? What does that last shot mean? What is the point?

I think to answer those questions, we need to look back at one key line of dialogue from the beginning.

“Let’s make some choices.”

That line stands out for me. I think that’s the point. What if you could know your death? What if that brought your life meaning? What if you could make choices without death as a consequence? What might you learn about yourself in the process?

I loved the final parade sequence. Reminded me of the day of the dead. I think that’s a clue. One last stop in purgatory before they transcend. There is no ending because in real life there are no answers about where we go when we die. It’s a ghost story and a damn good one.

Parting Thoughts

  1. The haircut sequence made me laugh. This writer is aware of the female haircut transformation trope. I see you … I see what you did there and the LOVE IT.

  2. Taboo behaviors are treated with kindness. Our main characters have sex, do drugs, commit suicide. All things society historically deemed as immoral or bad. Our writers say, “Hey! No good or bad. It’s all relative.” A literal breath of fresh air.

  3. Mental health issues treated with kindness too. That’s hard to do.

  4. No romance between our lead male and female characters. Thank god. I am so over romance as a character development tool for characters. They treat the hook up as a normal thing. Good.

  5. I am 36. Same age as Nadia. Girl, I feel you.

  6. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, make more stuff. Don’t do a season two with these characters but write me more beautiful, complex and funny things that break old tropes and forge new ground.

  7. Mirrors, reflections, duality - all in abundance and used well.

    Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of my analysis. I know people are reading from my analytics … but it’s a lonely comment section. Be a pal and drop even a high five below eh? 













































































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What to watch during the polar vortex. *UPDATED*

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It’s going to be -54 degrees in Chicago this week. Everything is shut down, even in a rate twist, Chicago Public Schools. If you don’t live here, that’s a local joke. CPS rarely closes. This means most of us, hopefully, will be inside looking for something to binge. Here are a handful of my favorites for streaming that you may have missed. I’m skipping the obvious choices and giving you some of my personal favs. This list leans toward the genres of : thriller, science fiction, action adventure and documentary scale. Genres that you won’t find too much on Oscar or Golden Globe lists but should be. In any respect, enjoy and stay warm!


UPDATED SUGGESTIONS 1.30.19

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD; NETFLIX

What is it like living in Antartica? Meet the people who live there. This doc explores human nature in places where you spend most of your time in darkness. Herzog adds his poetic commentary and thoughtful interviews in conjunction with gorgeous footage. It’ll make you appreciate winter in ways you haven’t thought about yet.

THE SUMMIT

A nail biter from beginning to end. The best reenactments I have seen on film for a story like this. It’s a harrowing tale that will have your heart pounding. By far my favorite of the mountaineering gone wrong documentaries.

THE THING: Rent it

Classic horror, also takes place in Antartica. I miss these old monster movies. I love the props and old school movie make-up. Created before everything was computer generated. This icy thriller is a great cold weather view.

FORTITUDE; AMAZON PRIME

This takes the best things about The Thing and puts it into modern times. Shot in Iceland … my hubby and I actually went to the town that this was shot in. The scenery is sure to go with our frigid weather but the mystery will have you guessing till the end. Wonderful performances. Highly recommend this one.

SNOWPIERCER; ITUNES on sale this week

This one is really good. I love me some Tilda, she is fantastic as a bad guy. It’s an action movie on a train that uses every action movie on a train trope but it does so in surprising ways. We ended up buying it after watching it on amazon last year. They took it off amazon, so you’ll have to rent it but it’s a great cold weather watch.

MOON; NETFLIX

If you feel like you’ve got cabin fever … this movie is for you. Imagine being on the moon, isolated and alone. The desolate and cold atmosphere and stellar perforce of Sam Rockwell makes this a must watch. It’s SOOO GOOD.

LIFE BELOW ZERO ; NETFLIX

Want to see what it takes to live in the Alaskan wild? These guys are doing it off the grid. They hunt and grow their own food, gather wood for fuel and heat, they trade with each other. It’s crazy to see what it takes to live off the grid in winter. Makes me appreciate my modern amenities.


MANIAC ; NETFLIX 

This show seemed to go under the radar. I have no clue why. It’s super fun, cerebral and weird. I would call it a strange psychological thriller set inside a highly designed universe that is a mash up of the 70s, 80s and 90s nostalgia. Imagine the set from Aliens, the technology from war-games and the strangeness of an ayahuasca trip mashed up with a few noir genres that is kinda like Vanilla Sky meets 12 Monkeys.

If you are struggling to follow, that’s because Maniac is hard to put in a box. If you can make it through the flashiness, underneath is a really beautiful and painful truth about human nature. That there is no easy fix for the darkness of life. We all need help, community and love to pull through. Perhaps that sounds a little hokey, but I promise this show delivers and may require multiple viewings. 

HEREDITARY ; AMAZON PRIME 


So I wrote a super long blog on this movie after seeing it in the theaters. It is by far the best horror film created in the past 15 years. It doesn’t have jump scares or flashy special effects. It’s a trauma based horror film. One that should have gotten an Oscar nomination for it’s lead actress. I LOVED this film for it’s brave and brazen portrayal of female vulnerability and power while exploring extreme grief. But be warned. You may need therapy after. You can read my blog about it here. 

EIGHTH GRADE ; AMAZON PRIME 

Why this one wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, I don’t know. I certainly liked it better than Lady Bird. It’s awkward, weird and adorable. Yes, it captures a midwest white suburban girl experience of 8th grade that we see on screen all the time- but it does so extremely well. While culturally, it doesn’t push any boundaries, it was the first film I’ve seen that tackles awkwardness without trying to overly transform the leading lady into a modern beauty. My favorite part, was that it painted young girls the way I knew myself to be: average, awkward, weird and smart. It brought back all the squirmy feelings I had growing up. I loved the script. I always feel like this girl when I put something out on the internet with my blogs or social media. Totally relatable.

THE BALAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS; NETFLIX 

This anthology is really really good. The stories are solid and the writing is on point. My only wish was that they diversify the cast a bit more. I think this would have been even better if they branched out and added some people of color. Having been to New Mexico recently, I also dig the scenery. It’s beautifully shot.

DARK TOURIST; NETFLIX 

Travel to the weird places, do the weird things. That’s the premise of this one. I wish the host was more Bordain like, in that I sometimes think he can be a little disrespectful in the way that white tourists can be annoying BUT he does some weird things that I wanted to see. Like a trip to Fukushima or a tour that attempts to give you an experience of crossing a border illegally. Easy watch and can break up any of the above if they are too serious. 

KEN BURNS , THE WEST 

Yes, he can put you to sleep. But if you want a really great history lesson this one is amazing, comprehensive and more woke than your typical history doc. I learned so much about America’s past. WAY more that I was ever taught. It really shifted my view of the typical white “western,” story. Which is why I think Buster Scruggs missed out on a crucial casting step. I appreciated how the interviews with Native Americans were handled, they really lead the story and I think thats important. It’s long. So it could take you a few days to finish this one. I’ve been watching it a little bit here and there for a few months. 

FYRE OR FYRE FRAUD

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Join the long list of people throwing their hat into this ring. It was a crazy party that never happened. It’s stupidity and criminality that was made for reality TV. Also wrote a blog about these. Where I offer a more critical look at the two docs. You choose. Netflix or Hulu. 


BANDERSNATCH, BLACK MIRROR 

Speaking of choice. Have you Bandersnatched yet? You may want to watch season 3-4 of Black Mirror too but Bandersnatch is clever. You’ll enjoy your choices and seeing them play out. I love how they involve you in the story with the writing and can’t imagine plotting out a story like this. It reminds me of video games but with more cinematic cut scenes. You’ll need a device that allows you to make the choices. Apple TV won’t work but several others do. My favorite gem happens in the therapists office.

THE STAIRCASE; NETFLIX 

If you like true crime, this one is at the top of my list. Start one episode, you’ll watch them all. This case is full of so many twists and turns but what I really loved about it was watching a family deal with grace under horrible circumstances. I am still on the fence on where I stand as an audience juror. The filmmakers do a nice job of keeping you guessing. Its a great alternative to Making a Murderer. 

MINDHUNTER; NETFLIX 

See how the FBI started the behavior profiling division of serial killers and coined the term. It’s macabre true crime drama at it’s best. The actors were given the real tapes from the serial killers to use to develop their characters and the performances are spine chilling. Season 2 will include a few infamous men and the Ted Bundy series is sure to “T," that up nicely. The last episode had me on the edge of my seat. It’s the real life Silence Of The Lambs that will make you question why you like it so much. I was surprised that I didn’t hear more about this show. It was like a good book. Couldn’t put it down. 

TRIGGER WARNING ; NETFLIX

Killer Mike from Run the Jewels is hilarious. Episodes 1-4 are amazing. You’ll laugh and question things in new ways. Really like this approach to cultural problem solving. The humor only points out the seriousness of the issues he presents, which is what makes this pretty progressive. My favorite episode is the Crips and Bloods soda. I’ve always said that gangs have marketable skills, they just need help learning legal forms of business. Killer Mike tackles that in the best way and the focus group is important to see. I wasn’t crazy about the last episode but the first 4 is great TV. 

CHILDREN OF MEN; NETFLIX  

This is one of my favorite dystopian films. Made before dystopian was hip in that young adult novel way. It was feminist long before The Handmaids Tale. If you don’t remember much about it, I highly recommend a repeat viewing. With our current climate, this one suddenly feels fresh again. Directed by the same man who directed Roma. I actually think this is his best film.

Worth renting: MAD MAX FURY ROAD

Speaking of dystopian. You guys, this movie got added to my favorite films of all time the second I saw it in theaters. Don’t let the trailer turn you off, it’s badly cut. I could have done better. A good chase sequence is hard to film, so I respect the craftsmanship. Fury Road was the first action film I’ve seen with a male lead that stepped aside for the females. Furiosa became my spirit animal. It’s an allegorical high octane dystopian rock opera on crack. It’s about feminism, war, capitalism, climate change and toxic masculinity without saying any of those words. I loved how the writers mashed up language and developed a theology created by a dictator that borrows from history, pop culture and rock and roll. The stunts were all filmed live in the desert and they will have you scratching you heads on how they did it. It takes the best of the old Mad Max films and improves the purpose. I think .. that might be my next blog. It’s so fun to pick apart all the symbolism. 

That’s it. What would you add to the list?

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Gender roles, witches, demons and Hereditary. A film essay and review.

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Gender roles, witches, demons and Hereditary. A film essay and review.

An opinionated and biased essay ahead, perfectly imperfect. This writer is aware of said biasses and welcomes your ideas respectfully. Proceed. Also, my spell check looks terrible on this one - I'll fix that later. *facepalm*

Halfway through his movie, I turned to my husband and said, “I think we might need therapy when this is all over.” I’d like to start with a caveat that we are a household that loves horror movies. In my opinion, horror is an under-appreciated genre. I'm not talking about franchise horror films, of which we are not a fan, with the exception of Insidious. I'm talking, The Shining, Blair Witch Project, Suspiria, Mommy, Let The Right One In, Babbadook. Classic horror tales and the like. Greek tragedies, even Shakespeare. I have a lot to say about this one. So fair warning, this essay is long. 

A QUICK BACKGROUND

I grew up reading Steven King, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice and Mark Danielewski. I would argue that even my favorite fantasy and science fiction writers like Tolkien and George R.R. Martin borrow from the horror genre. 

What solidified my interest in horror was actually a class in Chinese and Japanese cinema and art history. I enjoyed studying the nuances of the culture through the stories they told. Most of which were ghost stories. Ancestral worship is part of their culture. When visiting someones home, you might find a shrine to their passed loved ones. Ghosts are a normal, everyday part of their spiritual life. So too are their ghost stories. 

This connection to the dead is apparent in many cultures. The Celtic festival of Samhain, The Buddhist Obon, Dia De Los Muertos, Chuseok in Korea and Gai Jatra in Nepal. All have ceremonies and celebrations that honor ancestral spirits. Essentially, the ghosts of your family. I joke that even the Bible is one long ghost story. Full of death, rebirth, angels, demons, spirits, voices and apocalyptic visions. But where eastern religions and ancient cultures differ is around the premise of fear. Specifically spirits.

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Take, for instance, the Buddhist Obon and Del Dia De Los Muertos. Celebrations designed to honor the people who came before you, invoking the spirits of your ancestors come back to visit the living. One would light lanterns or lay a path of flowers to guide those spirits back to earth for the celebration. You are literally inviting ghosts to come and have dinner with you. These rituals are not fear based spiritual practices. You will find no children running away in horror from the ghosts of great granddad. They are beautiful rituals full of dancing, prayer, and community.  

I grew up going to Church for a large part of my life, so my religious experiences of adolescence are based on my experiences with the Christian church. Here notes my personal bias. I have no such memories of honoring my ancestors in a such a way from the Church. In fact, anything involving something seance-like would have been viewed as the devil. The dead are mourned in quiet reverence but one must be careful in creating any false idols. The only ghost that is ok to invoke, is the holy ghost. It's still very old testament thinking when it comes to this one. 

I have a vivid memory of sitting on a picnic bench at Jesus camp, 13 years old, sobbing uncontrollably. I just listened to a fiery sermon about hell and I was truly conflicted. I was already "saved," having said the prayer and done the ritual at 8 years old. But my father was not. He was an atheist. I didn't want him to go to hell. I was terrified and felt guilty. My counselor at the time kept pressing me to call him. She wanted me to "get him saved," right now. 

As an adult, I see how flawed that moment was. I did not call my father that night. I couldn't understand how my Christian peers thought less of me for doing so. I thought for sure that God would understand my compassion. My father and I had already discussed his feelings. He always respected my right to choose a religion, and I liked that, so I respected his. Fear of hell was used against me in this instance and it stuck with me for a long time. That is not to say that I didn't experience good things during my time in Church but eventually I grew up, moved away and formed my own relationship with faith and beilief. 

I could give many instances of examples of why I feel that Christianity is a fear based religion, but I am not defending that point for this essay. Let's assume that it is. 

I think it's interesting that our writer for Hereditary uses Goetia as it's religious influence. Goetia, an ancient Greek word that literally means sorcerer, get's its roots from the 16th century. Later, during the Renaissance, it became dubbed "black magic." The backdrop for the ending of the film and it's 17th-century Greek influence, we will explore later. But culturally, I think it's worth looking at this film through an American lens, of which, most of the population is Christian, making the comparisons I make relevant. Hereditary is an American film, written by an American writer. So I don't think he is trying to say anything specific about religion, other than to use it as a horror construct. This writer is obviously aware of his audience and is using that within his film. 

We like horror films about evil, possession and ghosts almost as much as we like superhero movies. That classic good versus evil fight. We love it when the lines are drawn in the sand and the tension is clear. We don't get that kind of clarity in life. In fact, life is made up of many unknowns and gray areas. Those two, a cause of our fear and anxiety. 

Hereditary doesn't put this idea front and center. Which is why I love it. The supernatural takes a back seat up until the second act. It dives head-first into the gray areas to establish our characters and keeps us in the deep-end with our worst fears. 


ABOUT HEREDITARY - NON-SPOILER REVIEW

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Hereditary is brilliantly written and performed. If I were awarding Oscars, I would give one to the writer and one to the lead actress. The writing and specifically Torri's performance is award worthy. It is visually stunning and draws from some of the best ancient storytelling techniques of the ages. Its greek tragedy influence is what makes the whole story so strong. Stand out moments occur in the long takes, the timing of the edit, the absence of music and truly breathless performances. 

But I would argue that the best thing about Hereditary is what it doesn’t explicitly say. Like a Greek Tragedy, it’s about the things that take place in-between the lines that make it so terrifying. It’s a spiritual horror film that speaks to our fears of inheriting the tragedies and traits of our ancestors. It’s about secrets between parents and children. Grief and it’s emotional manifestations. How tragedy can transform a person. If you are looking for a nice bow-tie ending, you won’t get it. You are more likely to walk away going, “huh?”

I loved the ending, but I think it will turn a lot of people off. 

The best thing about the movie, in my opinion, is about women, spirituality, possession, and emotion. Which leads us to the essay below. I won’t be diving into Greek Tragedy or deconstruction of its uses in horror films. That’s for another day. I think it’s been widely documented in reviews thus far. I’d like to take a look at Gender, Christianity, Religion and how this film plays with those larger social constructs. 

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GENDER ROLES IN HORROR FILMS 

Gender roles in horror films are one of my favorite things to pick apart culturally. (If you want to dive in more, this is an excellent place to start. ) Women in horror films have a long history of being gas-lighted by the male characters they interact within the plot. They are scorned with male “logic,” that the things they are experiencing aren’t real. Usually, they are tortured, shallow characters that look pretty and scream on cue. Often viewed as “crazy,” and spend most of the plot running from danger. This isn't always the case, there are a few standouts. But for the most part, I think the above is true. Women are either victims or "witches," in the majority of horror films. I also think it's interesting how we treat women who are having spiritual experiences. In our stories, we are uncomfortable with female emotion. Therefore, if someone is having an extremely emotional experience, we are likely to view them as scary.

We are at our roots a Puritan nation. One whose fear of “the devil,” allowed us to pillage “savage Indians,” in the name of that fear. Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries persecuted thousands of witches. Whole villages of Swiss women were wiped out in the hysteria.

In America, we have the Salem witch trials. 

I recently got to visit Salem Massachusetts. I read this fantastic book before I went called,A Delusion Of Satan, The full story of the Salem Witch Trials, by Frances HillWhich outlines in more context the conditions and beliefs that lead to the "witch hysteria.” Today, those Puritans have received their Karma. Salem is a joke. It’s become a tourist Halloween town. Complete with haunted houses, tarot readers, and hippie spiritualists. The “devil,” they so fought to destroy has won. I laughed thinking about the righteous judges jumping through time to see children running around in witch costumes pretending to put spells on each other in their beloved village.  

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The story of Salem became a cautionary tale of the dangers of religious belief. But the book attempts to take it one step further in outlining the gender roles of women, power dynamics between men and women and femininity, creativity and inspiration. Unlike the modern telling of the story like “The Crucible,” the book deliciously researches connections from historical records. The trials were meticulously documented. Which may be why the story has been passed down to new generations and became taught in schools. But the book makes some connections for me that my 5th-grade classroom reading of The Crucible didn’t. 

Life was hard as a puritan and men made all the rules. Imagination was stifled among children. Art was functional. Creativity was not encouraged, survival was. Sexuality was almost exclusively prohibited as a sin of the flesh with the exception of procreation. Pleasure was not allowed. Expression among women was silenced. These are all feminine values. Women who express extreme emotion are “crazy,” while men who express themselves in extreme ways are “passionate.” Soon “crazy,” became “a witch.” Any outburst of extreme emotion and a woman could be accused of being possessed by the devil. Witch hunting thus became inherently female and while anyone a could be accused of being a witch, most of the persecution was of women. 

As a little girl, I played a lot in an imaginative space. I experimented with all kinds of storytelling and play acting. As a teenager, I was emotional and dramatic. I guarantee if I had been observed by a Puritan priest, they would have convinced the town that I was possessed. I think most artists would have been accused of witchcraft in that era.

These tropes still exist today. We still silence women. We write stories where they are silenced by others. In a large majority of our horror films, women are either the victims or for lack of a better term, "witches." As time moved on, we stopped persecuting witches and started locking women up in asylums for misbehaving.  Thus replacing "witch," with "crazy."

I’m sure at some point, we have all thought our mothers to be “crazy,” through this lens too. Extreme imaginative outbursts or expressions of emotion are squashed in our society. We can barely handle a crying baby on an airplane let alone a woman who cries in public. 

And here marks the line of spoilers people. If you wish to continue, do so at your own risk. I am about to talk about the details of the story. 


GENDER, DEMONS AND WITCHES IN HEREDITARY

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Hereditary begins with our main character, Annie, in the midst of working on her art. She creates model dioramas. It is implied as the story chugs along that these dioramas are her emotional outlet. This is how she processes grief, anger, and fear. The tension between imagination, memory, and reality play nicely here. Why in the world would someone make a miniaturized model of the death of her mother? 

I enjoyed the duality of the models with life. The idea that I could take memories and tragedies out of my head and examine them as real-life objects. To see if I could make sense of them, process them differently. This process appears painstaking in the film. The details are fussed over, our main character possessed with the idea of recreation. A rebirth of her pain. Nicely done. 

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Next, we meet Charlie. Charlie is different. She makes you uncomfortable but we trust her slightly more because we assume it’s a mental disorder. The play on gender here is masterfully done. Our young actress is phenomenal but I question the casting choice. We love to put our humanly different in horror films and this borders exploitation for me. It's akin to pointing at her and calling her "freak." I get that we are establishing a long line of mental health issues for our characters, so I'll leave this one be. But do better next time. 

Next, the shocking tragedy that propels our characters into some of the best moments of the film. Personally, I did not see that one coming. The car accident begins our true emotional terror. 

Annie experiences real grief for the first time in the loss of her daughter. She was relieved when her own mother died, having been released from the burden of that relationship only to be thrust forward into the guilt of playing a part in her own daughter's death. Grief is not handled lightly here. Our main character moves through hysteric fits. She retreats. She creates twisted dioramas of the accident. All the while her husband grows more and more suspicious of her behavior. Her husband literally acts as men have throughout history. Questioning the intensity of her emotions and wondering if he should send her away. If we are sticking with our horror metaphors, Annie is possessed by grief. 

My favorite scene to illustrate this concept is at the dinner table. Tensions mount in the household to an emotional breaking point. Our male characters confront our female lead and claim that she isn’t being truthful about her feelings. They invite her to express herself. 

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She does. This eruption is the best scene in the film. Rarely do we get to experience female emotional flow on the screen. The sight of a woman in full emotional and visual expression makes our male characters physically retreat from the scene. The very thing they invited her to express is the very thing they can not handle and rather than applaud her completion of this expression, they squash it. The men refuse to join her and instead they persecute her almost as if saying, "burn the witch.’ The refreshing length of the shot and the stellar performance by the actress is noteworthy. They do not shy away from the complexities of extreme emotions. 

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I think all of us are afraid that if we let go on some level, what comes forth would be bad. Tapping into our emotional flow is scary. So scary that as a society we can’t handle people doing it in front of us. We tell each other, “don’t cry,” when comforting one another. We tell our men, “crying isn’t manly.” And when we see our lead actress express herself on screen, we too as an audience are scared. We question her sanity, if only for a moment. Can we pause for a moment to admire the cinematography choice here? It's like an 18th century painting. 

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I mean, look at that still shot above. Gorgeous terrifying women in full power feeling herself fully. Just hand her the Oscar, please. This scene is fucking amazing. I applauded Annie's capacity to let go and laughed when the men wouldn't join her. Granted, it has taken me a long time to be ok with my own extremities of emotions but now that I am, I was praising this goddess on screen. I honestly can't think of another on screen performance that accomplishes this as well as Hereditary does. 

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Emotions escalate as the film begins introducing the supernatural to the plot. Annie, meets with a new friend in her grief group, this friend conducts a seance to bring back the spirit of her grandchild. It seems to work and despite her reservations, she tries it. This triggers the climax of our film and leads to its ultimate resolution after discovering that her mother had a secret spiritual life. Spirituality “literally," kept in a box and hidden away until the very end of the film. I think spirituality is what our writer wants you to infer as the "hereditary trait." It’s the thing that our lead character doesn’t want to inherit from her mother. Her secret life. Her mental illness. Her spirituality. One might even say, she demonizes her mother.😉 

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CHARLIE

The gender play with Charlie is also worth noting. At the conclusion of the film, we learn that Charlie is a male demon reincarnated into a female body. His name is Paimon. His reincarnation into Charlie was a mistake, as we learn at the conclusion of the film. The whole film is a plot to correct this mistake. Charlie referenced as she presents more like a tomboy with an androgynous name. While women are often “Witches,” in our scary stories, men are painted as “Demons.” 

I always wondered why this trope existed in our storytelling. Sometimes I think it's about dominance and submission, Witches serve Demons. Women subserviant to men. Demons are usually powerful creatures in our stories. Females are usually the victims of demon possession, either used for literal possession or for impregnation. But it wasn’t always that way. In the pre-Christian era, demons were both male and female. Much like the ancient polytheistic religions that had many gods and goddesses, so too was the gender spectrum of demons. It’s Christianity that spun the gender roles and made them sexless. Technically, Christian demons are fallen angels, as referenced in the Bible. They are sexless beings whose purpose is to test human beings on their faith in God and lead them to sin. 

 

"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” —2 Corinthians 11:13–15
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I always wondered, why then do we paint demons as masculine throughout history? See that winged creature demon up there - - - what sex do you infer when observing it? For context, the above painting is Dante and Virgil in Hell - William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850. It’s a scene from Dante’s inferno, in which there are several biblical references used to describe the journey into hell. This painting is terrifying in person btw. It’s the size of a billboard and you can see the demons eyes staring at you from all angles. Notice the color palet and the lighting on the main figures in the foregroud. Remind you of any shot from before? 

Back to Hereditary … 

Why does Paimon need a male body? Why is he unhappy in a female body? Paimon is supposed to be a Prince not a Princess. If you don’t know who Paimon is … you aren’t alone. I had to look it up too. He’s one of the kings of hell with Goetic orgins, also referenced in Persian and Iranian stories. The “King," denotes man right? 

Paimon is referenced in a demonology spell book called Lesser Key Of Solomon. Therein lists 72 demons of which, one is Paimon. Each demon has a symbol, which was a clue in the film. Annie wears one around her neck. Guess she should have googled the symbol before wearing it. 

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So essentially our demon "man-king," is pissed because he was born a woman and his followers work to correct the issue. Wow. Talk about some gender issues right? The wiki page for Paimon also gives us a hint at a sequel btw… go read it if you like.

Also, loved the irony of the husband going up in flames. Guess he should have belived her huh? 

Also, loved the irony of the husband going up in flames. Guess he should have belived her huh? 

SO have you made it this far? 

If you have, cheers to you. Welcome to my geekery. I spent a lot of money on my education in art history, English and film critique. Literally wrote a paper a day for 4 years. I’m still paying off the bill. Blogs are more refreshing though, I don’t have to worry about being perfect or getting graded. I can just share my passion for picking apart social and cultural references in storytelling. 

That said, if Hereditary made me spawn a long essay like this, imagine what it might do for you. I will warn you, my husband is still having nightmares from the visuals. Which I didn’t even get a chance to geek out about here. That said, I do think that our tales of horror are the most interesting things to look at in society. Our relationship to fear or lack thereof is still taboo. Last year marked the first time a horror film was nominated for an Oscar, and I think to Get Out was nominated more for its cultural relevance and discussion of race in our time. I’d love to see more from this writer. I was seriously impressed. It’s well researched and smart with an excellent understanding of pace and emotional landscapes. 

So just like our movie, here ends my essay. I’m not going to neatly tie this up.

What did you think of the film? 

 

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Shadow Play and Arrival

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Shadow Play and Arrival

I preface this review by saying, I am rooting for Moonlight for best film. It's the most culturally significant of all the Academy nominees.

Arrival was my favorite film last year. 

I am a YUGE sci-fi geek. YUGE. You’ll find me watching reruns of X-files and consuming Star Wars fan fiction on my off time. For the record, I LOVED Force Awakens but hated Rouge One. What was up with Forrest Whitaker and why is the female lead such a bore? 

My dad let me stay up late to watch Mulder and Scully solve mysteries of the universe.

So naturally, anything about aliens gets my attention. 

Not to mention that my grandfather was convicted that if Aliens did have a language it would be musical. He thought we would communicate with them through tuning forks. He was a brilliant acoustical engineer, world renowned in his studies, but I enjoyed his more colorful theories about the universe. That would be one of them. 

What I didn’t expect was a film full of feminine values that quite frankly had me weeping. I don’t use the term weeping lightly here. I am talking a wet, snotty, ugly cry mess. It ripped my heart open in a way I wasn’t ready for. 

Granted, I have been feeling vulnerable in our current climate. Ladies, you know what I mean. Current events got me feeling RAW. I want to stay informed, awake and active in my world but FUCK if it doesn’t wear me down. I am stirred up 99.9% of the time. As an artist, I feel like that is part of my edge. So I welcome the state. 

Ok, back to the film. SPOILERS AHEAD, TURN BACK NOW. 

A quick recap, I paraphrase: Alien ships appear on earth. They are attempting to communicate with humans. The world is compiling scientists and linguists to help figure out what they are saying and to understand their motives. Ever see Signs? Dr. Bimboo says, “There are only two reasons aliens will make contact with humans. One: They are friendly human beings and are looking to make contact in the spirit of exploration or two: They are hostile. They have consumed all their natural resources and are looking to inhabit a new planet.”  Side note: I typed that dialogue from memory. #nerd

Enter Amy Allen, a soft spoken linguist who to is recruited to find out what the aliens are saying. Note, she is the only woman on the team. Her character slips back and forth between the present and to what we assume is the past where she is reliving the passing of her daughter. She decodes the language and attempts to explain the complexities of interpretation to the military who assumes position two from Dr. Bimboo: they are hostile. Fearing an intergalactic war Amy takes a leap of faith and sneaks into the spacecraft to make it right. She learns they chose her because of her ability to time travel.

Wait, what? Yes. She is a time traveler.

She hasn’t had her daughter yet. These were flash forwards the whole time. So she flashes forward to save the world and decides to have her daughter even though she knows she will die young. Gorgeous montage, life is amazing, credits roll. Cut to Melissa: Ugly cry face. Weeping. Sniffles. “Wow,” that was beautiful.

I know, I didn’t do that ending justice, but if you saw it … you know. 

The narrative spoke to me. A smart woman busy “man-splaining,” language and it’s complexities within a male dominated field … I can relate. If I have to sit through one more man trying to explain to me how a camera works simply because he sees me holding one, I am going to scream. At least my job won’t effect the entire world if I can’t communicate with my peers.

Language. It matters. It is complex. I often feel like the lone woman in the room calling for clarity. 

After I mopped my ugly cry, the next thing I did was google the writer. I needed to know who wrote such a beautiful science fiction film. I was convinced that I would find a female behind this story. The film honors feminine values and I was ready to applaud the woman behind it. What I discovered is that the film was written by a Chinese man, it was originally a short story that was later adapted for the screen. 

Even better. 

I wished the film were made in Chinese. Cultural context is important. Chinese is a fluid written language. It would have paired better with the heptapod language than our clunky English. This is the only eye-roll the film gets from me. It forces the “America saves the world," and in particular “White people save the world,” narrative. I am over it. This from the woman who loves Star Wars … I know. I am a hypocrite. I own it. 

In college, I studied Chinese and Japanese film. Their cultural narrative of time fascinated me the most. They believed the souls of their ancestors influenced the present. It was your job to honor them (and the family) by making good decisions. Most of our modern day ghost stories or horror films can be traced back to a shadow puppet plays. Credited as being the first movies, these stories were often about spirits interfering with the lives of the living. I think this is why the east consistently put out the scariest ghost movies, btw. Nothing scarier than an angry great grandmother coming to take revenge on you because you dishonored the family! 

I instantly loved the art direction of shadow play with the heptapod language. A nice nod to the Chinese cultural roots. The pane of glass between aliens and humans became it's own shadow play. Language dancing between the two worlds like communicating ancestors through time. Way cool! 

The present and the past co-mingling through ancestry is beautiful to me. Honor thy history. So when this film started to play with time, I jumped for joy. I had a feeling it was going to be good. 

I loved the question the film left me with: If I knew I could go back in time and tell my self that someone I loved was going to die, would I still decide to follow that path in the future? In this case, out main character knows how it will play out and decides to dive in anyway. Tears. I agree. I would choose to do it all over again with the people I have lost in my life.

I can't wait to view it again with this new lens. 

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Currently Re-Watching Silence of the Lambs + 2001 Space Odyssey

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Currently Re-Watching Silence of the Lambs + 2001 Space Odyssey

I am currently in the middle of simultaneous productions and feeling stretched thin. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I take a minute to remind myself why I started out on this journey as a filmmaker. So this week I revisited some old favorites to keep me inspired.  

I LOVE REWATCHING MOVIES AT DIFFERENT AGES. I GLEAN SOMETHING NEW EACH TIME. 

Today I marvel at framing and color. I won't even try to tackle my opinions of 2001 Space Odyssey. It is a beautiful, confusing, cerebral experience albeit masculine view on birth, death and space. That is as far as I will go.  I DROOL over the framing and mise en scene. Makes me want to shoot an entire one point perspective film. Symmetry is satisfying. I will forever have a cinematic crush on Kubrick. 

 THAT COLOR THOUGH... 

HELLO EYE CONTACT - I NEVER NOTICED YOU BEFORE. 

Silence of the Lambs is one of those films I avoided for a long time. Anthony Hopkins = Amazing. That's all I needed to know. Because of it's popularity, I stayed away. Last night, I could not sleep. The film I am currently editing is swimming around in my head. So unlike most normal people that would get up and put on something soothing to calm the mind... I put on Silence of the Lambs. 

I never noticed the eye contact and point of view. Consequently, the film I just shot uses this technique quite a bit. Just where my brain is calibrated at the moment. Hannibal Lecter staring straight at me, I want to look away but I can't. No wonder this gives me the willies. Wonderful use of breaking the fourth wall. Knowing what this must have taken to direct and perform, I am now officially impressed. I may be tardy to that party but it doesn't make it any less cool. After enjoying said discovery for a few scenes, I drifted off into a deep sleep. Luckily, without any unwanted dinner guests. 

Both films now streaming on Netflix. Inspiration achieved. #alwaysinspired #inspirationeverywhere


  

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Interstellar

There is much to say about Interstellar. That muchness is still churning around my brain. (Blog does contain spoilers) 

My thoughts are at war with each other. I both loved the film and wanted to roll my eyes at it at the same time. I think it will take a second viewing to sort out what that is but here are my initial thoughts. 

First, I am utterly impressed with the technology of the film. It is beautiful. In all its stunning americana from corn to 1960s colored film stock it references the golden age of NASA. It harkens your soul like a little boy who dreamed of becoming an Astronaut. I am seduced by its beauty. The film technique makes me drool and I fell in love with the light and color. I was thrilled to see the use of projections instead of green screen and enjoyed its glory in 70mm. 

The Story 

The story elements need work. Most science fiction feels like an ideological lesson or warning about the pit falls of humanity. Interstellar is no different. Ripe with an after school special tone: The moral of the story is that love will save us all... eye roll. For a film that introduces five dimensional thinking it's characters come off as two dimensional. 

The script tried to be too smart at times. (Like naming a character ironically after Murphy's Law.) There are some elements that worked. Gravity was one of them. Nothing felt more grave then the realization that a tiny mistake in space time would cost everything to our main characters. This was the best moment of the film. It was a heavy force, a terrifying realization that everything has changed and there is no going back. If I was Keanu I would say : "Whoa." This is about as far as the film goes in dimensions and emotions. Even the best of performances couldn't save the lack of subtext.

Listening to Carl Sagan's pale blue dot, one but can't help but feel small and insignificant. It fills me with wonder, sadness and a vast longing to understand my universe better. This existential crisis is a wonderful theme to explore. It strikes at the heart of the basic questions we all face in lives. Our characters in the film venture out into this unknown. I was hoping we would stay there. In that floating fleeting world of questions and space. A topic another one of my favorite science fiction films does well: Contact. 

Interstellar and Contact are closely related on the comfort scale. (And not because they both share Matthew Mcconaughey.) When our main characters venture into that unknown they are greeted with familiarity. At the height of their fear they are met with family, love and peace. Half of me loved this concept and the other half rolled my eyes at the cheesy, "gee-whiz" feeling of it all.  Maybe I am just not clear on what I believe the universe be. 

Where Interstellar differs from Contact is that Contact leaves you to decide what you believe. I like that better then being told to swallow my moral lesson like a pill and enjoy it. In Interstellar you take the blue pill and daddy's love saves humanity. We are the aliens. We have just figured out how to evolve through time travel. In Contact we return to earth with more questions then answers. The only thing we know for sure is that we are not alone. I had hoped for an Contact like ending. I wanted to walk away with more existential questions than answers. 

Instead I had questions like:

Did anyone else notice that if plan B needed to go through, that there was only one woman aboard the ship? That would make her the queen bee of the human race. Wouldn't you send up just a few more ladies in this scenario - especially if you knew your equations would never work?

Did you notice that twelve "astronaut" apostles went into space to check out planets and we ended up on "Judas'" aka Matt Damon's planet first?

What about the theory of relativity for which planets to go to first? If the data looked promising but we were receiving it as if they had just landed wouldn't you wait a bit just to make sure. Our scientists took the time explain that to us but not to themselves. 

The Science 

I have much respect for the science that is represented in the film. What the script lacked in character complexity it made up for in science. I wished I had known this before I went to see the film. Physics and astronomy have always fascinated me. While I am not smart enough to comprehend the math involved in the complicated equations that help explain our universe I am however fascinated by the theories and science behind them. 

Ask my husband and he can attest to the hours of lectures and documentaries he has napped through while I absorb as much of the information as I can. Physics is f!%^ing amazing. This is the single redeeming factor of the film that separates it from something you can skip to something you need to see in the theater. 

The science is accurate. Geekgasm! The models of the black holes in the film use actual scientific equations. 

View from a camera in a circular, equatorial orbit around a black hole that spins at 0.999 of its maximum possible rate. The camera is at radius r=6.03 GM/c^2 , where M is the black hole's mass, and G and c are Newton's gravitational constant and the speed of light.

This made me want to see the film again. The science is the real character not the story we are being told. Overall I do think this is a theater experience. In 70mm the film enveloped its audience and it is a fun film to pick apart. 

What did you think? Leave me some comments below. 

 

 

 

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